The story of a button: heritage interpretation discussions during the Industrial Heritage Network West Midlands meeting

It was a grey and wet Tuesday last week, but that did not stop members of the Industrial Heritage Network West Midlands (IHNWM) to travel from across the region and meet at the Birmingham Museum Collection Centre for the network’s bi-annual get together.

Members discussed variety of issues, however the focus of the day was on heritage interpretation of objects which don’t have connections with famous people, places or industrial revolution. Objects which tend to live in the back rooms and storage areas waiting for their turn to tell their story and shine on displays.

Phillip Roberts, the Research Assistant at the Birmingham Museums Trust, talked about his current project and looking at new, original ways of interpreting such objects. Trying to move away from pushing the usual links with the industrial revolution and looking for and discovering the untold stories behind the objects.

Phillip Roberts telling us all about his heritage interpretation project
Phillip Roberts telling us all about his heritage interpretation project

One of the objects stored in the collection centre is a button making machine. Phillip had asked the group to think about how they would go about interpreting it. In response, one of the members talked about focusing on what the machine made and using the ‘person behind the object’ to tell its story, or rather to think about it as ‘the story of a button’.

The interpretation can include the technical aspects of the machine, its inner workings and engineering marvels – this will always relate to some visitors. But there is so much more we can use to interpret objects! In the case of the button making machine, by looking at who was the person that operated the machine, what types of clothing were the buttons used for, who were the people that bought and wore that clothing and even, where do buttons come from today and how that compares to when the button making machine was fully operational.

Members agreed the stories we tell should look at the ‘human aspect’ and relate to people nowadays. This could be done by using social history and telling the story of an object from contemporary times going back to show how it relates to the modern times. Linking stories from the past to the present to involve visitors through relating to their current life. Providing a context for the object’s function, for example displaying a dress with buttons, and answering questions like how did the button get to be on that lovely dress? Where did the button come from? Who was the person that made it? How did they make it? And other questions helping visitors relate and better understand the object and its purpose, but also to learn about the people who lived in the times when such object was functional and relevant.

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There was a general agreement amongst members that there are multiple ways of interpreting collections but what we need to remember about is finding a balance between what we add to the interpretation, as much as that’s possible, and staying relevant to our audiences. Knowing and understanding your audiences is another crucial aspect of a successful heritage site and will be the focus of many network meetings in the future.

Some of the IHNWM members during the meeting
Some of the IHNWM members during the meeting

The West Midlands network is the first of the new Industrial Heritage Networks, or IHNs for short, that are being developed across England as part of the Industrial Heritage Support Officer (IHSO) project. The second network is in the North East.

The IHSO, Joanna Turska, brings industrial heritage sites and organisations together, organises inaugural meetings, facilitates each network’s development and provides tools and resources for networks’ growth including access to Trello, the communication and information forum, and the dedicated IHNs website for promotion, awareness and knowledge sharing.

The networks which are currently being developed include South West, Cornwall & Devon and London. Remaining regions, including South East, Hampshire, North West, Yorkshire, East Midlands and East of England will be developed throughout 2019.

For more information about a network in your region, contact the IHSO on: or visit:

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